There seems to be a lot of confusion among motorists and bicyclists alike on the subject of people on bicycles using the roads.
In simplest terms, a person riding a bicycle is permitted to ride on the road, regardless of whether there is a separate path next to the road, and motorists have a duty to maintain a safe operating distance between their vehicle and a bicycle.
The law states: "A driver of a motor vehicle must at all times maintain a safe operating distance between the motor vehicle and a bicycle."
The specific distance is not defined, but it is clear that the motorist has a legal duty to give sufficient space when passing a cyclist. Many states have a minimum 3-foot passing distance specified by law. This gives you an idea of the space that should be given when a motorist passes a bicyclist, but ultimately a driver must make a decision about how much space is safe given the circumstances.
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My experience is not that people do not know how much room is safe, but rather that some motorists simply do not want to share the road with bicycles. This leads some to get dangerously close to a person riding a bike, maybe to scare them or to yell at them to get off the road. I even had one motorist block an entire lane of traffic in order to "force me off the road to where bikes belong." This type of action is not only extremely dangerous, but also illegal. The law (Section 56-5-3445) makes it a misdemeanor to "harass, taunt, or maliciously throw an object at or in the direction of any person riding a bicycle." Violating it comes with a minimum fine of $250 or 30 days in jail or both.
A person riding a bicycle on a road in South Carolina has all of the rights and is subject to all of the duties imposed on drivers, including obeying all traffic lights and signs. Bicyclists should stay to the right side of the road and not ride more than two abreast. They are not required to ride on the shoulder, but whenever practicable the shoulder is the preferred and safest place to ride. Bicyclists must signal turns, use lights and reflectors when riding at night, and have a bike equipped with brakes. A bicycle should not be used to carry more people at one time than the number for which it is designed, and it is illegal for a person riding a bicycle to cling or hold on to a moving vehicle.
Hilton Head Island and Bluffton both have great path systems for people to move around and stay active. Hilton Head refers to their paths as multi-use or shared-use paths. They are great for running, walking, skating and for people riding bikes at speeds below 10 mph. But the reality is that someone who is riding a performance-oriented road bike is likely to be traveling at speeds of 17 to 25 mph, and sometimes in excess of 40 mph. This creates a very unsafe environment on shared use paths.
Picture a family of four riding beach cruisers at 5 mph heading westbound on a path. Then picture a group of cyclists heading eastbound going 20 mph on the same path. Further complicating matters, people using the paths face the constant obstacle of road crossings, which usually require the cyclist to stop. Many of the local bike-related incidents occur where paths cross roadways, given that motorists are looking to merge into traffic and are not looking out for people on bicycles.
Sections 56-5-3425 and 56-5-3430 outline a bike rider's duty and rights pertaining to the use of paths and bike specific lanes. Under these sections a "bicycle lane" must be used by cyclist, unless it is only an adjacent recreational path not for the preferential or exclusive use of bikes. Hilton Head has several examples of dedicated bike lanes, and the town distinguishes between paths and bike lanes. It lists 108 miles of paved shared use paths and only six miles of dedicated bike lanes. Likewise, the paths alongside Bluffton Parkway are not mandatory for bicyclists. A good example of a mandatory bike lane in Bluffton is the marked off lane on Simmonsville Road (between U.S. 278 and Bluffton Parkway).
Hopefully, this information helps create a safer environment for motorists and bicyclists. Sharing the road is not an option; it is obligatory. If bicyclists and motorists operate their respective vehicles in a reasonably prudent manner, we can share the road without accidents.
Fuentes is an avid cyclist and a member of the Hilton Head Cycling Team.